Travel: Go ahead punks, make my holiday: Orlando

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The Independent Travel
Orlando's talk radio station, REAL 97.1, decided last month to invite callers to suggest a new promotional catch- phrase for the city. The DJ on the afternoon phone-in show reckoned it shouldn't be difficult to improve on the slogan just announced by the city's tourist board.

Local tourist bosses, concerned that Orlando's image was being tarnished by the violent attacks on foreign tourists elsewhere in Florida, justifiably felt a need to draw attention to the city's impeccable crime record. They were particularly keen to stress that, while visitors to Miami and other resorts might find a flak jacket a useful addition to their holiday wardrobe, Orlando was safe and fun for tourists.

So, after extensive research and prolonged reflection, Orlando junked the old slogan ('Orlando: Go for the Magic]') and ceremoniously unveiled the 1994 model, brimming with ingenious wordplay: 'Orlando is safe and fun for tourists.'

Now, if you wanted to encourage the world to believe that your city was safe and soberly managed by serious people, you would no doubt play it safe by getting someone sober and serious to present your new slogan - Alistair Cooke, say, or Charlton Heston. But at this point Orlando decided to throw one out of left-field: the city engaged the services of Hulk Hogan, the tough-guy-wrestler-turned-actor.

But if Orlando was starting to have second thoughts on its slogan, callers to REAL 97.1 had plenty of other suggestions: 'So you're being mugged - but what about this weather?' or 'Orlando: it's to die for'. The eventual winner was: 'Orlando: we welcome you with loaded arms.'

But while ordinary Floridians in Orlando can afford to treat European fears of violent attack with some disdain (if not quite the irreverence of the Miami punk band Dead German Tourists), it is no laughing matter for the city's tourism bosses.

For the past decade or more, Orlando has reigned supreme over the American domestic tourist business. But at the end of last year, just as the city was beginning to feel the effects of the slump in tourism caused by widely publicised attacks on tourists in other parts of Florida, Orlando itself came under assault.

Las Vegas launched its bid for the family sector with the opening last Christmas of a series of massive hotel developments aimed at tapping Orlando's theme park market. Insult was added to injury when, in the process, Las Vegas overtook Orlando as the American city with the most hotel rooms - more than 80,000 and climbing.

Another threat to Orlando's hegemony has come from Branson, Missouri, the fast- growing country-and-western show town; an equally serious challenge is posed by the increasing popularity of riverboat gambling on the Mississippi. Faced with this daunting opposition, it is not Hulk Hogan that Orlando needs but Davy Crockett.

AN ITEM on the main evening newcast on Orlando's Channel 6 told of a significant dinosaur find in Nebraska. The anchorwoman who picked up in the studio after the report held the camera for a beat before frowning: 'Well, that's all very well,' she remarked to her co-anchor, 'if you believe in evolution.'

Christian fundamentalists in Florida may prefer to put their faith in the story of Adam and Eve, but few Orlando residents can doubt that the tourism business is governed by Darwinian principles, and only the fittest survive.

Theme parks are suddenly investing billions of dollars to stay ahead of the game and lure new customers. Disney World's secret weapon this summer is 'Tower of Terror', a haunted-house thrill-ride which features an out-of-control elevator that falls 13 storeys. Significantly, Disney is also making a strong pitch for the bargain traveller this summer, with the opening of its 3,800- room All-Star Village Resort offering accommodation from less than pounds 40 per room per night. (Competition among Orlando motels is so ferocious this summer that visitors can expect to pay as little as pounds 20 per night on the tourist strip in Kissimmee, 10 minutes' drive from the Magic Kingdom.)

Universal Studios has revealed plans for a second theme park with a 12-acre night- time entertainment complex, five themed hotels offering 4,300 rooms, and a golf course. Sea World is banking on its new manatee exhibit.

New attractions continue to arrive. The latest in Orlando is Splendid China, a pounds 70m 'Chinese-themed attraction' which covers a 76-acre park with a mini-version of the Great Wall of China and happy Middle Kingdom landmarks such as, er, Tibet and, um, Tiananmen Square.

The next big one on the Orlando drawing board is Veda Land Theme Park, dreamed up by magician Doug Henning and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The pre-publicity promises a 450-acre theme park based on 'magic, mysticism and transcendental meditation'. Presumably it won't have roller-coasters, but merely a big darkened room stinking of joss-sticks and echoing to the sounds of a Grateful Dead album.

You can rent a three-bedroomed house in Orlando - with pool and all mod cons such as cable TV, dishwasher, washing machine, spa bath etc - from about pounds 450 per week. So it's not surprising that it takes a lot to dissuade the British from coming.

'Go ahead punk, make my day.' That is the British slogan.

ORLANDO is all very well, as they might say on Channel 6 news, if you believe in having fun all the time. But what if all you want is sun and sand, peace and quiet and gentle exercise? Point your car south-west from Orlando and head for the coast: you could choose almost anywhere from St Petersburg downwards to the Keys.

My tip is Marco Island, just south of Naples on the Gulf Coast. Marco is a discreetly affluent community with a few big hotels perched on a blinding white beach. The Marriott resort hotel has all sorts of sports and water activities. I chose the three-hour bike tour of the island for pounds 10.

At 9am we circled the vast hotel parking lot on our bikes, anxious to be off. Eric, the tour leader, handed out complimentary bottles full of chilled water. 'You're going to need those, it gets kind of warm out there,' said deeply bronzed Damon.

He did another head count. We were still two short. 'We'll give 'em a couple of minutes.' We circled the parking lot again. The sun was already fearsomely hot. Overhead, three pelicans cruised in brooding formation like Heinkel bombers.

Two women arrived, not at all ashamed at having kept us waiting. 'Sorry to hold you up and all,' said one, who looked like a youthful Roseanne Arnold. 'Hey, that's OK,' said Damon, cheerfully. The rest of us muttered darkly.

Roseanne then proceeded to hold us up even more as she fussed about her bike. 'You know, Damon, I think my seat needs to go up.' Damon fetched a spanner, and after a protracted bout of pushing and heaving, succeeded in raising the saddle. Roseanne took it for a trial run around the parking lot. 'You know, I think it was better the way it was before. Sorry, everybody.'

By this time, a woman who had the body of Kathleen Turner and the voice of Ethel Merman, was using the phone in Damon's hut. 'Now you can't handle that, Cathy. Send me the facts, Cathy. Will you do that now, Cathy? I need you to do that, honey. Don't try and do this on your own: you need me. Please. I'm going on a bike tour with the kids. OK?' She juggled the phone to her other ear and called fortissimo to her small son at the other extreme of the parking lot: 'You need to go to the bathroom one last time, honey?'

Entertaining as all this was, Damon decided on a little hurry-up. 'OK, folks, we're going to do a real lee-isurely tour of the island. Stay on the sidewalk and we'll be in pretty good shape. Eric will be riding back as the caboose, I'm up in front.'

I rode up front with Damon, who told me about his fine arts degree, his girlfriend in Germany and his father's real estate business up north. Every neat little house we passed with its water frontage, its motor cruiser and its carefully manicured lawn seemed to be for sale. Damon knew the price of every one. 'Real estate's in the blood. See this one,' he said, pointing to a modest-looking property that might have been built from a kit. 'dollars 5.9m; just been reduced. Evander Holyfield had a look, but he didn't like it.'

A little farther on, at a quiet point where the Gulf washed in behind a couple of plain houses, we paused. After a few moments two sets of eyes slowly emerged from the water, followed by huge globular bodies. 'Manatees,' Damon said. Having studied us all with careful interest, the creatures sank slowly beneath the surface.

'Eric and I are your typical Floridians - we ain't from Florida,' said Damon as we pedalled home. 'That goes for just about anybody you're going to meet down here.'

'I was born in Florida,' bellowed the woman with Ethel Merman's voicebox.

'You ain't typical,' said Damon.

Staff in the Marriott's coffee shop wear name tags that show which town they're from (as Damon said, nobody is from Florida). 'It's for conversation purposes,' said our waitress from Pennsylvania. 'People ask you about it. Like you did.' Did she ever go back to her Pennsylvanian town? 'Went once to a cousin's wedding a few years back. Old steel town. Now the steel's gone. The blacks come in and took it over. Now it's in a real mess. I ain't going back.' She poured a coffee and gazed out of the window at the palm trees, the white beach, the pelicans, the blue sky, the gold disc of a burning sun. 'Here's OK for me, I guess.'

(Photograph omitted)

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